THE TUMESCENT ADOLESCENT

                                   By  Sy  Schechtman

 

          Someone,  George Bernard Shaw probably,  said that  “youth is a shame to  waste on the young”  but then it is still common wisdom today that parents approach  the years of teen age development of their progeny  with some apprehension---the terrible teens--  portending  stormy, dangerous family weather and  discomfort.  Often an  unhappy, contentious  time for   both  parent and child.  And little more than a hundred years ago,  while  there were the self same actors in the family drama of parent and older  child,  there was no such character around who was an adolescent, unless from a very wealthy family.    Instead we had the almost physical adult but who was denied the status of sensual gratification  and responsibility that is inherent in the more commonly associated more mature level of adult hood.      These pre adult family members,  however,  were eagerly employed  in many aspects of  work production  in the city  or on the farm.    Child labor laws were generally not  yet a factor in impeding their hands from contributing to the family budget.

          But then these many extra younger hands became gradually less needed, especially in the farm fields.   And then the gains in worker productivity in the city and factory   became more evident as  the industrial revolution  gradually became more manifest,  first  drawing more workers  from the farm field to the   city factory,  and then starting  to diminish  the overall need for so many hands as worker productivity began to improve due to increased mechanization.   The industrial revolution was in full bloom causing much ultimate good  but also much temporary dislocation.   And child labor,  which had been an abundant and cheap source  of labor  became  now a moral debit that had to be discarded.  Thus the little red school house on the prairie started to flourish.   First as a somewhat primitive  multi age situation in one  room  affair and then slowly the multi complex educational mammoth of today.    Thus we had, at the beginning of the   20th century, the term adolescence created by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall,   to mark   the “definitive   term  for the elongated  hiatus between  childhood  and adulthood.”   This somewhat limbo period of deferred sensual gratification and adult responsibility.  

          Did the thirst for   additional  knowledge fuel the role of the schooling expansion,  or the explicit need to warehouse these fledgling adults,  whose efforts were now less needed in certain kinds of unnecessary labor?     Whatever the   fundamental impetus,  certainly  schooling became  a part of the mix of activities of increasing numbers of children,  young and older, whether impelled by social as well as purely educational  need.  And as some critics  insist,    set up  in the identical mold of the already existing factory model,  with the generally melodious school bell sonority instead of the grim factory whistle or blast to start the day.   And soon increasing schooling beyond  the initial grades became fashionable.   And parents had to proudly attend not only graduation of their primary school child,  but even of “high school”,  the secondary rung upward on the educational ladder now deemed not only more fashionable but absolutely necessary.    And now, of course, this trend has gained steam roller momentum,  and the    necessary passport  to successful adulthood is “higher education”----college of some sort and then even post graduate work , and the prestigious title of  “Doctor”, betokening some extra study   and specialization beyond  the previously  premium  level of the basic,  post   high school college degree.    But inevitably we are tipping the  boat too  far off  the desired  even keel  of   moderation.  Of getting far too much of what we have been hoping and praying for.    An overload  of  too many overtrained expensive specialists and a severe diminution   in much needed unskilled  or basic skilled  workers—electricans, plumbers, construction  workers, waiters and restaurant personnel,  and all around general “handymen”.  And leaving   us   dolefully susceptible to the following somewhat  sarcastic retort proper, when  the customer,  a busy, relatively  prosperous professional,  protests the high cost of the electrician’s  bill  presented to him for work in the professional’s office.   “Sure,  Doc,  I used to feel just like that when I was still  practicing  medicine.”  (Or, of course, any other post graduate specialty.)  Only about 10 percent of native born  men now drop out of  high school,  and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates  that 56 million new jobs will be created in  the next ten years---half of them needing only  a high school education. There is nothing shamefaced about that extra piece of paper called a college degree  but  sometimes society pays a large but hidden tax on this  mass collective lemming like  approach prolonging  adolescence   against the reality of adult life and shedding the protective chrysalis of adolescence.

          But   nature has provided us with the social dilemma   of the biological evolutionary progress of its teen age human   creatures  being too far advanced for the social  and emotional  standards that are considered acceptably normal.  We have this biologically  mature person, male or female,  while with not much social or cultural  tradition, still at the  height of his or her mental acuity and physical strength and coordination and able to  successfully  procreate, but whose ability to be successful  parents is questionable.  In prior generations, with  the shortened life of all people, considered well able to attain the married state and parenthood in the 18 to 21 range.    An acknowledged adult without the further educational hurdles of college and graduate school.  Today, however,   we have an intensely consumer oriented  society luring him or her into the web of main stream adult society.  Despite  the possibly  artificial legal  barrier of being “underage”.

       Truly the tumescent adolescent.    Enticed, lured,  and also rejected, repelled.  And affluent enough to be able to afford,  if given parental backing, many of these consumer wiles.  But now gradually  becoming part of a youth and separate  peer culture and also impelled to reject parental prototypes drastically, the mantra becoming that if “the person is over  thirty don’t talk to them”.    Some separation  and individuation of youth from parent is essential, but maturing youth  in our modern society to a large extent has  become a counter culture,  with a feckless, mature and permissive   parental   over group  that was distressed  if not distraught  by this “teen age rebellion”.   Indeed,  peer pressure of  adolescent  or young adult  friends  in  high school and college can  often negate  or at least significantly modify  one’s heretofore  fundamental values and goals if the prior nurture at home  was not positive  enough.

          And  sometimes cause tragic confusion and depression.   Teen age suicide  is the third leading cause of death in the 15 to 24 age group.   Many years ago, when concept of adolescence was first becoming manifest,  one positive way  to channel all this energy  not yet condoned as adult  status  was the Boy Scout Movement,  founded  in this country about l911.   Its credo included the American Scout Oath: “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to my God and my country to keep myself physically strong, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, keep myself mentally awake and morally straight.   And  also  “a scout  is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave ,clean and reverent”    (With an agenda like that  no time was left for depression or morbidness!)    In   rural areas   the 4 H clubs had similar very positive goals, as did the American  Girl Scouts , founded shortly after the  Boy Scouts.   Besides the sterling qualities stressed in their credos  extracurricular  recreational outdoor activities such as camping, woodcraft and the physical skills demanded of the oudoor life in general were strongly emphasized.   By 1916  the Boy Scouts  of America were  granted a federal charter in recognition of their 250,000 membership.   Of late, however, the momentum of the Scout  movement has faltered. This is partly due to the increasing diversity and growth of other teen attractions  and opportunities  such as the internet  and  the novelty   and challenge  that  they present.   Besides this increasing sophistication there is the opposition  to the Scout Credo  by agnostics, atheists  and avowed homosexual leaders.   Many influential activist groups,  such as the ACLU,  have  targeted the Scouts for alleged  opposition  to these groups.   And the New Jersey Supreme Court,  since overruled  by the US Supreme court (5-4),  supported the ACLU’s pro gay suit  about homosexual scout leaders.

         And as we go further into current modernity, and away from the relatively innocent  innovations   beyond conventional schooling  at all levels,  we have a luxiurant growth of off beat teen age energy in many flavors, including “motorcycle gangs,

rockers, , greasers, beatniks, surfers, mods, hippies,  radicals,

punks, and rappers.    An exotic mix but one inevitable in an open democratic society  with less pressure to conform and  where one’s right to free speech and peaceful dissent is a touchstone of  liberty.     In England for centuries the “playing fields of Eton” where thought to exemplify   that ideal of honest  competition and  just rewards for valiant effort.   With strong  support of the English  traditional school system instilling formal debates and  the respect of  differing opinions.   In this country  we have the added burden that we are rapidly becoming a polyglot  nation,   perhaps unfortunately.    The unifying  force of  our heretofore national language—English--  seems to be dissolving in the  increasingly large tide of immigration.   More and more does basic information have at least   a necessary  Spanish  translation,   and bilingual education  also a common  necessity in many Hispanic areas.    The cherished ideal of the “melting pot”---assimilation, from many one,  e  pluribus unum ----seems very much in doubt.   And our public school system   is also having to defend against  alternate teaching styles  such as home schooling,  vouchers  to choose a school of personal choice,  and other alternate modes of transmitting the increasingly large amount of relevant  knowledge.    Indeed one seminal, radical work  has been Ivan Illych’s   “Deschooling Society”   in which he in effect  argues that  when “you are  teaching  students are not learning.”   Advocating more open “classes”  in the field, on site events of actual  participation  in the flow of life and work.    In effect trying to deemphasize  the whole corporate  educational   structure in some idealized more  intimate personal way.   Which made for stimulating slogans, sparkling conversation and hopeful speculation, but  not much else in practical implementation.   Of  course  the day of the internet and email  and I pods  is just dawning,  and more personalized contact with  students  is  now a creative possibility, and the positive fusion of didactic teaching  and tangible learning   now  may  be a concrete reality.

          But the success  and fruition of the adolescent experience, its detumescence   into  the  positive young adult,  shedding resentments  and frustrations and striving upward,  will be the result of  combined  efforts of parents and peers and schooling  that has enough  firmness, but lack of rigidity  and respect for individual  uniqueness and  personal space.   This is an immense task.   We have  about three hundred million in our nation now,  most of them  first or second generation immigrants and many,  many of them now adolescents with their unique problems of  adjustment and  in a  vary labile environment.    The  continued acculturation and assimilation  of the current  young people---adolescents and recent immigrants—will test the enduring strength of  our country.    So far the Iraqi and Vietnamese Wars—apparent debacles that they were—have not  dimmed  the loyalty of our citizens  even   unto valiantly sacrificing  their lives again  or sustaining serious wounds.     That  their lives have been apparently wasted  is a senseless crime that our level of civilization  continually  perpetrates,  and we have never learned to surmount.  And for our nation to continue its leadership  in the world  and hopefully once again a beacon  of  peace and stability in the world  the model  must not be the somewhat  narrow image of the “playing fields of Eton”  and its upper class implications,  although  it did encompass   some broader spectrum of   middle and lower class participation.   But for us  the “playing  field”  must be the far broader spectrum of our mass education system  starting now with  pre school  and going on up through  the college level---at   least.!     We have much that is  far from perfect,  with some imperfections  and venal happenings,  but until now many  million continue to “vote with their feet”  by immigrating  with the promise of more freedom and economic opportunity here.     And   while this trend is never a sure thing  we have still created the  most open society in history with the most faith in the common  man.  While there is still too much   rhetoric and not enough reality it is still an  unparalleled  accomplishment---so far.  Still the  greatest place for the struggling adolescent as he passes the bar into adulthood to harvest the many socioeconomic  and political  fruits our culture has even now available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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